Monday, January 26, 2009

Rejection from the SXSW Film Festival

Along with hundreds of other filmmakers, I had my film, Night Before the Wedding rejected by the SXSW Film Festival today. Now I will do my best to put some of my thoughts and feelings into words and provide you my immediate reactions. I can say that the rejection letter is very well written. The best I have received from any festival that has not accepted my work. The letter included the hard numbers; that they received 3500 submissions this year and accepted 110 Feature Films.

I am certainly disheartened by the rejection letter. This festival meant more to me because it was one that I targeted before I even shot NBTW. I wasn't even sure if I could make the deadline. I ended up submitting a 'work in progress' a few days before the final deadline. It is the only festival I have submitted to thus far, but that will soon change. I believe my film measures up very well with films that I have seen emerge from SXSW in the past years. As I think about that, what crosses my mind is...did anyone from the festival actually watch my film? Did they watch more than 20 minutes? I will probably never have these answers, so I will move on.

When I really examine my feelings right now, I can tell you what stings the most. I am looking to prove that I can produce work that is welcomed and embraced by the Top 10 Film Festivals. This is a level of achievement I have yet to reach so this kind of validation is important to me. The SXSW rejection is one opportunity erased, similar to losing a million dollar case on Deal or No Deal. And it leaves me with the question, can I still reach my end goal?

Why does this rejection matter? One reason is that this is one of the premiere indie film festivals in the U.S. Another reason is that I have not been to Austin, TX and I would love to make the trip. The audience at this festival craves independent cinema and they flock to screenings. How amazing it would be to experience that as a participating filmmaker. I will stop there. I am sure you could fill in more reasons that we are all familiar with. There is something that has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks regarding these festivals...'Branding.' You see, I don't just think about filmmaking, I think about marketing and getting others to become interested in seeing the films that I make.

One of the main things that sucks about not being accepted into SXSW is losing the branding of a top tier festival. Let me explain. I will start with an example of a film I watched a few nights ago, Baghead by the Duplass Brothers. Here is the movie trailer for the film When you watch this trailer what is one of the first things you see? The story is quickly set up with a voiceover and some opening images and see the laurels and the words, "Official Selection Sundance Film Festival" In the independent world, Sundance is the KING for branding. It garners immediate interest from all around the globe. From there the trailer is followed up with more footage and quotes from various indie news outlets including indieWIRE and Film Threat. The quotes are nice but honestly, after the Sundance laurels, you can pretty much show anything you want and those who follow independent film are going to be interested. It is the ultimate stamp of approval.

What if you don't have that Approval/Acceptance? What can you do to create that kind of branding to sell your film? Of course there are other festivals out there, but is being accepted into the "Binghampton Film Festival" really making anyone stand up and take notice? To some degree it might cheapen your film. People think to themselves, "What the hell is the Binghampton Film Festival? (I made it up) Never heard of it. Film is probably trash." And once people are thinking that, it is extremely difficult generate buzz and get people to see your film. For me that's the bottom line. More than getting into any one film festival, my aim is to get people interested in my film and be willing to pay to see it.

What makes distribution in the independent world so difficult is that the top tier festivals are so competitive that only a handful of films receive the sought after branding. Indie films are a much tougher sell without this branding. This is the power that Film Festivals currently have. They have the branding power. This is what I have been thinking about, how do I recreate that kind of branding power towards my film, just in case it isn't endorsed by the festival gatekeepers of the Top Festivals?

What can you do? What can I do? What can we do? Let's create a dialogue together. Share any ideas you may have and I will share my thoughts.

Getting rejected stings, but it doesn't mean that I will not strike back.


MR said...

Hang in there, David.

David Branin said...

Thank you for taking the time to read and for your support.

I feel it is important to share the lows as well as the highs. You certainly will see me continuing to push forward.

Pricot 63 said...

You are right about the branding but I noticed that several films touted out of Sundance have not exactly set the box office on fire. Hamlet 2, good idea - bad movie.

David Branin said...

Thanks Pricot. Glad to see someone comment on my thoughts on 'branding.' I agree that just because you have the acceptance doesn't guarantee success. It is though a great head start against the rest of the pack.

I believe as independent films find news ways to distinguish themselves and find inventive ways to brand themselves, they will see more success.

Genevieve said...

My filmmaking partner is reading over my shoulder and his comment was, "Did we write that?"

We feel the same way. Our ultimate goal was SXSW because we shot in Texas. But we shot a short and hoped that even though we didn't have a top tier budget or big name cast, we could somehow slip in.

What hits me is that the festival circuit is becoming like American Idol. How so, you say? Well, when American Idol began, it was about discovering talent in the rough - finding amazing singers who would never have broken in or had a chance without the show. The last few seasons, however, the show has been planting its own contestants - singers who already have had deals with major labels, who have already released albums with million-dollar marketing budgets. This season, one of those passed through to Hollywood was Joanna Paccitti, a name I recognized because, as a teenage girl, I owned the Legally Blonde Soundtrack. Joanna has released two albums, and had her songs on four different film soundtracks - is she really that "undiscovered?" No. American Idol is no longer about discovering talent, but about marketing the talent they already have.

My point is, the features that get in to these festivals? They aren't really indie anymore. They have B or above level actors, they have directors with recognizable names, and they are getting million dollar funding from the big studios, just under the guise of "Searchlight," or "Focus," or whatever. They are studio films, trying to reach a niche market, and using the festivals as a marketing tool. And the fests, because they want high profile films, allow it.

So, what's a true indie to do? Who knows. Keep trying, maybe, hope that you somehow stand out despite having real funding or a big name? Or maybe we retreat and try a different tactic. The internet, for example. We can provide e-movies, similar to eBooks. Maybe if you get Netflix a bunch of professional looking DVDs, they will agree to list your film as available to rent ... there's got to be something.

Chuck said...

It took me three and a half years to make my first feature film. I maxed out all of my credit cards, I made the best film I could make, and I thought to myself, "this could be it! This is it!" So far it has not been it. I decided to try to skip the film festival circuit and send the film to semi-obscure distributors. No bite. I've sent the film to many film festivals since then. This month, I received very nice dear john letters from Hampton's Int. and Louisville Int. I also received a very curt, "not accepted", from the Orlando Film Festival. Seeing as how the Orlando Film Festival isn't exactly a big film festival, this hurt more than the others. I know I made a good film. I also made a marketable film. I made a film with heart, and a film that is socially relevant today. That was my plan all along in order to sell it. I still have more festivals to wait on, but I am no longer hopeful. I have worked professionally in the film/video industry since I was 14. It is all I've ever wanted to do. I'm turning 27 next week and I am at a loss on what to do. Before the news that my film wasn't what they were looking for, I actually started preproduction on my next film, but if this film doesn't do anything, then there is absolutely no way that I can raise enough money for the next one. There is always self distribution I suppose, but I am not a sales person. I am a filmmaker. A filmmaker who is probably going to get stuck producing local commercials for the rest of his life. Thanks for your thoughts. It's good to know that I am not the only one feeling as hopeless. This might not help. It doesn't really help me, but I have to say it anyway. Don't give up.

Chuck Mere'